Philly Creative Guide

Here's the Thing

Bill Haley

Stay Ahead of the Pain
by Bill Haley, 1 Apr 2009

Bill Haley is President, Interactive of Allied Pixel (www.AlliedPixel.com), an integrated media production firm specializing in the convergence of HD video, web and interactive media. He is also an evangelist for PhillyCreativeGuide.com. He can be reached at [email protected].


My wife and I just had a baby. This story is not about that. But during her recovery from the c-section (which, in case you haven't had one, hurts like hell ... it's called Caesarean-Induced Pain or CIP for short,) a nurse with a pushcart full of percocets advised her to "stay ahead of the pain." It's a lot easier to manage pain before it becomes unbearable, she warned, than to wait until it's unbearable and then try to manage it. Which got me to thinking.

Grace, our painful bundle of joy.

Working in the creative business, we deal with pain all the time. More often than not, the pain involves our relationship with the client. It comes on different levels. For example, a client may come to us to alleviate pain she's already having. Her website is not "Web 2.0" and needs to be, lest she lose all her customers. Or maybe she worked with another production firm in the past and had a bad experience. You get the idea. Those are good kinds of pain, actually, because they drive business. We just have to do our job, cause minimal aggravation in the process, and the pain goes away, replaced by joy, gratitude, repeat business.

The harder kind of pain to deal with is the pain that stems from our engagement with the client and is a result of the work process itself. And it is unavoidable. As far as I know, there is no perfect world. In the course of the project, frustrations and aggravations will arise. This is particularly true when you are passionate about your work, and your client is the passionate type as well. This is the kind of pain that can be managed, must be managed, if the relationship is to survive. Let's call it Project-Induced Pain, or PIP for short.

You want to intercept PIP as early as you can. To do that, you need to set up a pain radar. You need to be on the lookout for certain red flags that serve as advance indicators of PIP. These include changes in the cadence of communication between you and the client. For example, you may see a dramatic increase in the quantity of emails going back and forth. Or a dramatic decrease, which is even worse. The messages may be overly focused, meaning the client is dwelling on a particular point of frustration. Look out for increasing legions of people being cc'd on the client's end, particularly if some of them are in the legal department. Another indicator is the timbre of communications. Messages may become terser, more stressed or more formal. Occasionally, a client may even come out and make a statement such as "I am not happy with this situation." That's a dead giveaway for PIP.

Project-Induced Pain (PIP): Know the warning signs.

In general, PIP comes when there is a lack of congruence between your goals and your client's goals. What the heck does that mean? Let's say my goal is to produce the world's most artistic corporate training video for my client. It will be The Godfather (Parts I and II) of sales training videos. I will shoot it in 13 different locations and I will include a scene with a horse head in a bed. But my client's goal is to have the video done by, uh, next Wednesday. See the disconnect? Granted, in most cases the issues are more subtle, but it's still a matter of misunderstanding expectations. Thorough, candid discussion is the answer. You need to get inside the client's head. Preferably, before work on the project begins.

PIP can also arise because you have screwed the project up badly and repeatedly. In that case, you just need to get your act together.

Once the pain has been detected, you'll be wise to assess the damage. Here, you can use the smiley-face chart from the hospital: "On a scale of one to ten, with one being no pain and ten being the most pain you've ever endured, can you tell me how painful this project is to you?"

And then there are clients who make projects difficult, simply by virtue of the fact that they are a pain in the ass, or PITA for short. Have you ever had a client like that? Probably not (wry smile.) Why do clients succumb to PITA? Who knows. I typically attribute it to a tragic adolescent spin-the-bottle mishap. Or some big meanie stepping on their party hat in second grade. It sort of doesn't matter. PITA is actually easier to deal with than PIP because there are really only two options to consider.

The first option is to simply suck it up and resolve to never work with them again. And that's fine, except for the repeat business part. And the feeling of being a pathetic, spineless wimp. The other option is to call them on it. I have done this a couple times, with excellent results. One client, not to be named (ok, it was Tina G. at a major ad agency that starts with the letter L) exhibited extreme PITA behavior. The conversation went like this: "You know, Tina G., you are a pain in the ass." And then I stopped and gave her a big smile; nothing more. That's critical. After she got back up in her chair, a miracle happened: She agreed. She apologized. She promised to change her ways. And she did, for a while at least. Turns out the poor girl was hard-wired for PITA and just couldn't help herself. But at least we understood each other.

If you can successfully stay ahead of the pain, you are well on your way to instilling happiness, also known as Project-Induced Happiness (PIH for short.) This is a euphoric state, occurring at the conclusion of the project and accompanied by uncontrolled sobs of joy and prodigious exchanges of warm and fuzzy emails. See you there.

Print Article Brought to you by: Bill Haley | President, Interactive of Allied Pixel